Thursday, June 25, 2009

The King of Pop is Dead

August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

Two quotes from the Boston Globe, June 21, 2009 edition.

From the front page article, continued on A8 under the title, City's sports program flailing:

"When I step on the field, it's the one place where I don't think about all the craziness," said Alex Munoz, a Dorchester High baseball player. For him, the "craziness" is this: a lender threatening to foreclose on his mother's home, a personal dilemma involving his girlfriend, the shooting deaths of several friends, the escalating gang violence in his Roxbury neighborhood.

Compare that to this quote, appearing the same day in the Section V article All-Scholastics Spring 2009:

Spring can be the most challenging season for a high school athlete. How do you stay focused on your game and keep thoughts of the beach, pool parties, and lazy summer days out of your mind? It isn't easy.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review #2


Book: The Court of the Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Rating: 2 of 5 Stars

Minor Spoiler:

I'll admit; I was browsing through the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of the ICPL and I picked up this book mostly because the cover looked beautiful. That was a mistake I'd like to say I won't make again, but I probably will.

Jay Lake, author of the Mainspring says: "If Charles Dickens and Jack Vance had ever collaborated, they might have written this book... The Court of Air is a collision between English letters and the hard-edged vision of grunge fantasy." Thanks Jay, you've just ensured I will never pick up one of your books. By Dickensian he means that the character all speak in heavily stilted Victorian brogue. It's more comical than interesting, and feels more contrived than natural.

For the first half I slogged through the plot holes and under-developed characters. To be fair there were some interesting ideas and relationships, but while there were plenty of words they some how failed to create the immersion I crave from a well-developed fantasy world. Background, character history, and information about the world were often communicated not through a compelling narrative a la the Golden Compass (a *great* example of a story driven by a spunky young heroine), but instead by asides and expositional dialogue that at times was hilariously bad.

The absolute low point came around page 302 with this quote:

"Don't you not understand? Molly softbody is a descendant of Vindex, which is why her system juices bubble with the very stuff of mechomancy."

Ugh. That was akin to the moment in the Star Wars prequel where we learn that the force is all caused by some goofiness at the mitochondrial level... 302 - 309 seeks to artificially unite all the hints and teases that were laid out ever so ponderously in the first 300 pages.

Fortunately mid-way through page 309 the pitch of the whole novel changes, and this is where Hunt is most proficient. In essence the central conflict of the story finally begins. From there till the end of the book the suspense crackles (as much as it could with my minimal investment in the characters) and the action is genuinely well-written, 4 out of 5 star quality. I just wish he could have gotten to it about 200 pages earlier.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Collection or Book?

I recently, but belatedly ran across this review by Ellen Wehle.

Wehle reviews Joanne Fuhrman's Moraine which Publishers Weekly called, "well positioned somewhere in the nifty triangle formed by Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan and the Shins," a nifty triangle I had previously been unaware of.

It's not Fuhrman's book or "nifty triangle[s]" that I feel warrant comment after three years, but Ellen Wehle's main argument independent of the review. Wehle says,

"The very fact that we publish our poems not just individually but in books implies relatedness, a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality that demands the poems be read together. Why, then, will one volume read as a distinct entity, confident and sure, while another reads like a grab bag of bits and pieces? What makes a book a book?"

Clearly Wehle holds some contempt for "grab bag" and it's this sort of attitude that has lead to the death of the first true collection by poets.

Anyone who visits the University of Iowa library has the opportunity to peruse the MFA thesises (even mine) going back to the beginning of the Writers' Workshop. Some of these were then published as collections and these collections provide an interesting window into the creative development of many poets now studied by literary scholars.

However, as the writing industry, and particularly the public interest in poetry has contracted first "collections" and even the initial MFA thesis have become less like a first collection and more akin to the polish level of a contemporary writer's second and third books. They are more likely to include sets of poems similar in form and/or content with the weaker or sometimes simply more difficult to categorize poems strained out. Suitable for individual publication, but not compatible with an over-arching form.

Most books of poetry I've read in the last few years have a discernible theme, even if like in the case of Moraine this a somewhat contrived or obvious post-modern idea like "the chaos of culture." A Collection may be a less polished form of art, but if we seek to demean the collection as a form comprised of mere "bits and pieces" we will miss out on the relative pleasures a first collection offers. Particularly we will be missing a step the writer's early work and trajectory as an artist. The collection won't die, but somehow the publishing community has decided that collections are the domain of more established writers who perhaps have earned the right to write roughly or randomly, whereas new poets must prove their discipline in some way before they're entitled.

By all means a first collection should be selective. I don't want to read a poet's high school journals (unless they're really fantastic), but at the same time I appreciate the possibility of something a little rougher, a debut that indicates exciting potential for future avenues in the poet's work, a collection with several different types of gems.

I suppose what I like best about reading the first collections of contemporary poets is the relative lack of Artifice. Artifice is an idea central to the work of most artists, but at the same time it can result in tunnel vision. It's exciting to read a poet's early work, when they're just discovering their ability to use words to communicate something fresh and interesting about the human experience, but haven't quite figured out the exact categories and strategies that will give form to the words.

Perhaps this is mostly semantic, with "collection" and "book" indicating two vague and overlapping forms. I think the highest volume of poetry readers are probably students taking literature classes in high school or college and I wonder if students with shorter attention spans, taught from anthologies packed with variety would crave the steadfast unity of a "book," or be excited by the possibility of a collection.

Certainly each has merits. What do you think?